Matt James says ‘The Bachelor’ failed him: ‘A complete circus’

A man sits on a wooden deck.

(Piera Moore / For the Times)

In a tuxedo that flattered his tall, athletic frame, Matt James looked like a movie star as he embarked on his historic journey on ABC’s The Bachelor. He took a deep, anxious breath as a parade of beautiful women arrived, all vying to be his bride-to-be.

One by one, the attendees approached the commercial real estate agent as he stood in front of the lavish resort that would be the season’s headquarters. Most devoured him with their eyes. Some rebelled First impression: Hardly any lingerie, a soccer jersey with “Mrs. James” on his back, a vibrator. One handed him a giant homemade meatball and asked, “Can I put my balls in your mouth?”

James starred in what has been called a seminal season for The Bachelor. As nationwide protests erupted sparked by the murder of George Floyd, the hugely popular reality franchise, which had been repeatedly criticized for racism and cultural insensitivity throughout its 20-year history, moved quickly to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter – show movement. Disney-owned ABC selected James from a pool of candidates for the upcoming season of The Bachelorette and announced that he would be The Bachelorette’s first black lead.

“This is just the beginning, and we will continue to take action regarding diversity issues in this franchise,” ABC Entertainment President Karey Burke said in a June 2020 statement, adding that the network “has a responsibility to… Ensuring the love stories we see on screen are representative of the world we live in.”

But as James watched his debut with friends and family in his New York apartment months after filming finished, he began to sense that The Bachelor had strayed from that guideline. It seemed that the significance of his presence and the milestone it marked had been buried under the show’s usual hubris, laser-focused on the big drama of finding a happy ending.

“There was nothing that could set the stage – my background, who I was or why I’m here,” James recalled in a recent interview with The Times. “The show went straight to seeing these women doing crazy things. It was very frustrating to watch.”

As the season progressed, the feeling didn’t fade. He argued that the producers changed gears without telling him and failed to portray him as an accomplished young black man who overcame many personal and professional challenges. He balked when members of Bachelor Nation’s massive fan base called him boring and boring on social media. Some even referred to him as Uncle Tom.

Two men are talking in a forest.

Matt James (left) and Chris Harrison in The Bachelor.

(Craig Sjodin / ABC)

The crisis deepened. Graphic designer Rachael Kirkconnell, who James was clearly in love with, was swept up in a firestorm when fans discovered she had been photographed at a pre-war party in the South in 2018 and “liked” racially insensitive social media posts. Rachel Lindsay, the franchise’s first black Bachelorette of the 2017 season and an “Extra” correspondent, was attacked with racial slurs after a controversial TV interview with host Chris Harrison in which the “Bachelor” mainstay seemed to dismiss the Kirkconnell controversy .

By the time James returned for the After the Final Rose live special, the season had ended, Harrison had left the franchise, and James was mentally and physically exhausted. He felt “The Bachelor” missed its chance to reverse its troubled history. As he left the stage hand in hand with Kirkconnell, whom he had chosen to be his mate, he vowed to repair the damage and regain ownership of his narration.

“In my transformation from a person to a prop, important parts of me stayed behind,” James writes in his new book, First Impressions: Off-Screen Conversations With a Bachelor on Race, Family, and Forgiveness. The memories, which he co-wrote with Cole Brown, author of Greyboy: Finding Blackness in a White World, offers a more complete, three-dimensional portrait of James as he discusses his life before The Bachelor and his experiences on the show.

In a tone both chatty and insightful, First Impressions details James’ upbringing to a single white mother in Raleigh, NC, his brother’s encounters with law enforcement, and how his tumultuous relationship with his largely absent black father affected his ability to sustain himself to form relationships. He emphasizes his deep spirituality and his “desire to share the lessons I’ve learned from a life of ignoring unlikely odds.”

“I felt like I started writing the book during the show because I was tapping into these places in my past in real time,” James said. “I addressed things that I had hidden in the darkest corners of my mind and being that I never wanted to address.”

James said he was constantly having meaningful conversations with the women on the show about race and other serious issues, “but when that wasn’t coming across on the show, it just seemed like I lacked substance, I lacked depth. We had the opportunity to have these tough talks, but the show fell short.

“I’m disappointed, not just for myself,” he continued. “Central America could have benefited so much. So many lives could have been enriched, not only through my conversations with Rachael, but with the other women who have been on this journey.”

Instead, he writes in First Impressions, his identity as “a hybrid child, an ambitious dreamer and a tireless nerd” has been subsumed by the controversy. (ABC and Warner Bros., which produce “The Bachelor,” declined to comment on this story.)

A man in a hat and blue windbreaker poses in front of trees.

“In my transformation from human to prop, important parts of me stayed behind,” James writes in his new book.

(Piera Moore / For the Times)

The missteps started on the first night. James describes having a heartfelt conversation with Harrison about the burden he felt and his concerns about outside pressures that he was choosing a black woman. “I spilled my heart out for more than an hour, emphasizing the impossible choice that lay before me—an openness to love in all its many forms on the one hand, and a duty to my people on the other,” he writes in “First Impressions”. .” “It felt impossible to please everyone.”

But when the discussion aired, “it was only a few seconds,” shredding its nuance and ultimately misrepresenting James’ point.

However, fans looking for “first impressions” hoping for a sizzling takedown or juicy bites about James’ season should beware. His account of the season and the tensions between him and Kirkconnell after her antebellum picture resurfaced is a small fraction of the 256-page book. Harrison is only occasionally referred to, he is not even mentioned by name.

“I didn’t want to use this story to get people engaged with my book,” James said. “There will be another Bachelor, and there will probably be another Black Bachelor, and there will be another tell-all book. I wasn’t interested. If that interests the fans and outweighs the personal things I want to share, then my book isn’t for them.”

James also said what happened during his season had already been widely reported and scrutinized: “There was nothing more to repeat. My relationship had become a sideshow, a complete circus. Rachael and I have moved on. We’re one of the few couples from this franchise that’s still going strong. The reason is that we do things at our own pace. We don’t play games that a lot of people play just to stay in that circle.”

He might have been more insightful in the book if he’d felt more support from leaders who were committed to having a diversity focus, he said.

“Maybe I would have told this story if the franchise had tried harder to be a part of this conversation when it was at its peak,” James said. “This opportunity was missed because everyone was scared and sitting on their hands. I get it, but that’s what happens when you bring people of color into your space. If they’re not ready to have that conversation, they should definitely consider not going there in the first place. There are things about being black that non-black people can never understand. It’s too much for her to handle. But it’s my life.”

Ashley Tabron, a North Carolina high school teacher who began watching the show in 2017 when Lindsay made history as the first black Bachelorette, said she felt “The Bachelor” cheated on James but was proud that he emerged victorious and found love.

Bri Springs, left, and Matt James inside "The bachelor."

Bri Springs (left) and Matt James in The Bachelor.

(Craig Sjodin / ABC)

“Matt James was pushed into an impossible situation that had a lasting impact on Bachelor Nation,” Tabron said. “I totally understand his criticism of the show because it failed in so many ways. Despite this, he was able to find lasting love and use his platform to raise awareness of causes important to him. I applaud him for putting his story out on his own terms.”

Despite his misgivings, James is philosophical about his Bachelors experience and has nothing against the franchise.

“I took on that responsibility right away,” James said. “I knew what I was signing up for. It wasn’t the right audience. My message wasn’t what ‘The Bachelor’ was trying to promote in their franchise, which is fine. It’s up to me because I’m naive. Rachael and I were the ones in charge and doing the talking. The franchise is a collection of people. i am a person Rachel is a person. How do you hold an organization of people accountable? Not you.”

After the season of James came other changes in the franchise, including a season of The Bachelorette with a black lead (Michelle Young), a black co-host (former Bachelorette Tayshia Adams), and the show’s first black executive producer ( Jodi Baskerville, who worked as a producer on the Bachelor franchise and other reality series). Still, struggles for inclusion continued, with black finalists from Young’s season sidestepped as the next bachelor for former soccer player Clayton Echard – a move that infuriated many black fans.

For his part, James has other things to think about than The Bachelor with his book and his new love. When asked if he would do it all over again, he had a surprising answer.

“I would do it tomorrow,” he said. “It was still an incredible experience and so much good came out of it. It was frustrating and disappointing. But you can also look at it differently. One of the main reasons I got on the show was to find someone who was right for me and I did that despite the show, which is hilarious. I found what I was looking for, which shouldn’t have been the case.”

He smiled. “But I’ll take it.” Matt James says ‘The Bachelor’ failed him: ‘A complete circus’

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